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Chinese applications to U.S. schools skyrocket

The number of Chinese undergraduate students in the U.S. has doubled in the last two years. China's booming economy and the ability of families to pay tuition in full is also playing a big role. NBC's Adrienne Mong reports.

BEIJING – Wenzy Duan dreams about becoming a delegate to the United Nations.

“I know this [ambition] is pretty high,” said the 17-year old Beijing native.  “But I think I can give it a shot.” 

To prepare, Duan wants to study international relations at an American college – someplace like the University of Washington. “I hear [it] is good at social science," she said.

The University of Washington is one of approximately 10 U.S. universities Duan plans to apply to in the coming year with the help of an education consultant she hired last summer.

“I know that the scores is not the only thing that the university will consider whether you can get in or not,” said the high school senior.

Duan is not alone.  Today, China sends more of its students to America than any other country. During the 2010-11 academic year, 157,588 Chinese students were studying in the U.S. – an increase of 23 percent from the previous year, according to the Institute of International Education

The growing market of Chinese students wanting to go to the U.S. has created various cottage industries in China and the U.S. –  among them are education consultants who help students navigate the maze of college applications and "brokers" representing American universities who seek student candidates paying full tuition. But it's also fueled anxiety among American students and their parents about increased competition from abroad.


Education consultants: the main cottage industry
“When [Chinese students] decide to come to the U.S. and study in the U.S. school, they have no idea,” said Steven Ma, president of ThinkTank Learning, the consulting group with which Duan is working.  "What do colleges in the U.S. look for anyway?  What do they want?  What type of students they want?  And that’s where we come in.”

ThinkTank Learning, based in Santa Clara, Calif., offers tutoring and college counseling.  Most of the students contracting its services have been Asian-American, but Ma said increasingly his firm began fielding calls from mainland Chinese families wanting their advice. 

Eventually ThinkTank Learning opened a branch in Shenzhen in 2009 and then in Beijing a year later.  It charges anywhere from $17,000 to almost $40,000 for tailored consultation packages lasting six to 12 months, dispensing advice on choosing the right schools, writing essays, or preparing for interviews.  

“They’ll just tell you when you need to get something done by what deadline and how do you prepare your application to the school’s standards,” said Julia Yin, Duan’s mother, a petroleum engineer who hails from Hunan province.  “Basically, everything is DIY [do it yourself.]"

Go West, Young Man (and Woman)
China sent its first student to an American college in 1850: A native of Guangdong Province named Yung Wing earned his degree from Yale University, paving the way for thousands more over the following century.

The flow of students from China to America dried up in the 1950s when the establishment of the People’s Republic of China gave way to tumult and isolation, and did not re-start until 1974 1978.

From then until just a few years ago, "It was almost all graduate students, most of them funded by the host universities through research assistantships or teaching assistantships," said Peggy Blumenthal, senior counselor to the president at the Institute of International Education (IIE).

Now, Chinese undergraduates drive the growth, particularly in the past two years.  At the start of the 2006-07 academic year, 9,955 Chinese undergrads were enrolled in U.S. schools. The following year, that figure jumped to 16,450.  By the 2010-11 academic year, 56,976 undergraduates made up a third of all Chinese students living in the U.S.

“What you’re seeing is the growth of the middle class of China who can really afford to send their kids to the U.S.,” said Blumenthal.  “The Chinese undergrads are all coming virtually self-funded.”

Adrienne Mong

Wenzy Duan (centre) and her mother, Julia Yin, go over college choices with a ThinkTank Learning consultant in Beijing.

The fact that so many students pay their own way has not gone unnoticed.

"Foreign students spend about $21 billion a year in the U.S. in tuition and living expenses for them and their families,” said Charles Bennett, Minister-Counselor for Consular Affairs at the U.S. embassy in Beijing – where Ambassador Gary Locke has made among his top priorities the expansion of visa processing capacity in China.

“That’s a very large sum of money for U.S. academic institutions,” continued Bennett, especially as so many face shrinking endowments or reduced state funding.

The Chinese comprise at least 21 percent of all international students newly enrolled in American schools, which means that they and their families contribute roughly $4 billion to the American economy, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Edging out American students in America?
Recent reports, however, have suggested mainland Chinese students and their ability to pay full tuition are costing American students placement in American colleges. A bankrupt state school system in California – one of the most popular destinations for Chinese students – has meant that its well-regarded schools are seeing record enrollments from out-of-state and international students. 

For the 2010-11 academic year, California welcomed the most international students – 96,535. And for the tenth year in a row the University of Southern California was the leading host U.S. institution for overseas students, enrolling 8,615, according to the IIE.

But the IIE argues adding mainland Chinese students is helpful for diversity.  “Most Americans will not study abroad. On the other hand, their careers will be global,” observed Blumenthal.  “They need to learn how to interact with professionals from other countries, and many of them will be from China.  There are very few industries or business not affected by China.”

Moreover, at the graduate level, Chinese students aren’t competing against American students for a seat in the classroom, according to Blumenthal.  “There still aren’t enough Americans in the pipeline wanting to get graduate training in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math,” she said.

But detractors note other challenges have surfaced as a result of so many Chinese students going to U.S. schools.  Among them is whether some applicants from the mainland are cheating their way into admissions by falsifying their academic records or achievements. 

One consulting company in Beijing that works U.S. universities, Zinch China, says 90 percent of Chinese undergraduates submit false recommendation letters for their U.S. college applications and that 70 percent enlist someone else to write their essays.

The dishonesty works the other way, too.  A growing number of “education brokers,” who work on behalf of U.S. institutions to solicit Chinese students, have led to misrepresentations and predatory fees, according to a revealing report from Bloomberg News. Some agents promise admission to top-flight schools, charge exorbitant fees, in some instances including a portion of scholarship funds, and students can end up at schools that are a far cry from the "dream schools" they hope to attend.  

Can China produce innovative thinkers?
The desire among Chinese students to seek an American college degree has grown stronger over the years owing to a number of factors.

Adrienne Mong

The parents of Dolly Luo believe an American college education will improve their daughter's future career prospects.

Above everything else, there is the fierce competition for gaining admissions to a preeminent Chinese university. The selection process is decided solely by the gaokao, an annual national college entrance examination that lasts nine grueling hours over two to three days.

This past year, more than 9 million students across China took the gaokao.  And believe it or not, that number has been declining since 2008 as more students opt out of the gaokao and sign up for exams like the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test), both of which are generally prerequisites for applying to any U.S. college or university.

A lively debate is growing about whether China’s education system can produce innovative thinkers who can enable the country to lead – not just catch up with or follow in the footsteps of industrialized economies like the U.S. or Britain. Such concerns triggered a widespread discussion online when Steve Jobs died earlier this year.

“The students here are not as robotic as Americans think,” said Gene Hwang, a 27-year-old Taiwanese-American, who has been working in China for ThinkTank Learning for almost two years.  “But they are held back by some of the systems in schools, which emphasize rote memorization….  We work with them on [developing] critical thinking.”

Broadening those horizons
“When I get into America, I can get [a liberal] education [that] could open my mind,” said Zhang Yuqi, a soft-spoken but intense 17-year-old high school senior.

He’s been working with a ThinkTank Learning consultant for three months, reviewing which schools to apply to and working on his essays.  A possible math major, he has his eye on Carnegie-Mellon and Emory where he hopes to find a climate that differs from his elite Beijing high school, which he says has too many “planned activities.”

Duan wants to study in the U.S., because “they accept all different kinds of different ideas.  You can dream about anything,” she said.  “In America, I can experience more…maybe all kinds of things I will never experience in China.”

For high school junior Dolly Luo, it's simply about getting the best education.  “The U.S. has the most well-developed college education," said the 16-year-old Beijing native who loves Harry Potter and dreams about attending an Ivy League college.

Her parents have similar faith in the U.S. college experience.

“She will have more opportunities, and it will broaden her horizons,” said William Luo.  In fact, Dolly’s father had harbored his own U.S. scholarly ambitions, but he didn’t have the financial resources to enable him to pursue his graduate studies in America.

“I hope when Dolly goes abroad and she learns American values or Western values that she can absorb the Western education – the good parts: the culture, the education,” continued Luo.  “In China, we would need that.”